The WellBe Organic Hair Salon Guide: How to Avoid Harmful Chemicals, Get Natural Highlights, and Stay Safe at the Salon

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Can you name your best friend’s OG hair color? This question might be tougher to answer than you think, because chances are that she dyes, or at least highlights, her hair. In fact, the most recent numbers indicate that 75% of American women color their hair, a number that’s been increasing dramatically over the decades. And while we love the freedom to play around with hair color, we also know that chemicals in hair dye — and other hair salon products — can cause some serious health issues. But don’t worry, you don’t have to give up your color routine to stay safe. In this guide to organic hair salons, we look at the risks you face at the salon, organic hair salon options in major cities, and steps you can take to protect yourself no matter what salon you frequent.

Harmful Chemicals in Hair Dyes

It can take a lot to change the color of someone’s hair, and for decades salons and major companies have turned to harsh chemicals to do the heavy lifting. While the specific formulations vary from product to product, there are a number of particularly harmful chemicals to beware of when you’re coloring your hair:
  • p-Phenylenediamine (PPD): This is an incredibly commonly used chemical, found in about two-thirds of conventional hair dyes in the U.S. Despite its ubiquity, it’s extremely dangerous — so much so that it’s banned in Germany, France, and Sweden. Rated a 7 out of 10 for toxicity by the EWG, PPD poses serious health risks, including cancer: a 2001 study from University of Southern California found that women who colored their hair once a month with a PPD-containing dye for fifteen years had a 50% higher risk of bladder cancer, while a 2008 study showed a link with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There’s also the risk of a serious, potentially fatal, allergic reaction (even if you pass a patch test), as well as lung and kidney problems and even rheumatoid arthritis. Um…what? This is terrifying.
  • Formaldehyde: Yes, the preservative famous for embalming corpses can be found in hair dyes. If that connection wasn’t creepy enough, there’s also the fact that formaldehyde has been linked to cancer and fetal damage in utero. Today, it’s much less common than it used to be, and is usually used in very small quantities these days, but still something to look out for.
  • Resorcinol: Used to permanently bond the dye to the hair, resorcinol is an incredibly common hair dye ingredient that has been shown to disrupt normal hormone function, elevating testosterone levels — ie, completing throwing your hormones out of whack.
  • Ammonia: This harsh chemical has long been used to open up the hair cuticle to allow dye to be absorbed. It’s also known to cause respiratory problems and asthma, as well as eye irritation.
  • Coal tar: Yeesh. This one just sounds bad. This is actually a category of chemicals that are derived from petroleum, and have been known to cause eye injuries and allergic reactions, and are associated with an increased cancer risk. Yet, these chemicals are almost completely unregulated due to an FDA loophole. According to the FDA, they “cannot take action against a coal-tar hair dye, as long as the label includes a special caution statement.” A statement nobody in a salon getting their hair dyed has ever seen or heard of. Sure…that makes sense…
What’s more, due to yet more loopholes, this time in the Toxic Control Substance Act, the FDA has no authority to require that companies test products for safety, meaning that the fact that your favorite salon carries a certain product doesn’t indicate anything about how safe it is.

Other Harmful Chemicals in Hair Products

Unfortunately, even if you don’t color your hair, you’re probably still exposed to some dangerous chemicals at the hair salon. Just consider the fact that studies show salon workers have a higher risk of cancer than the general population, and it’s clear that this is a serious problem.
One particularly dangerous (and popular) salon treatment is the Brazilian Blowout, which contains formaldehyde. What’s worse, the formaldehyde exposure doesn’t end after the treatment: the fumes are reactivated every time heat is applied to the hair. The chemical exposure from Brazilian Blowouts alone has been known to cause bloody noses, sore throats, rashes, and respiratory infections.
Other chemicals in common hair salon products — gels, sprays, mousses — have been associated with everything from asthma to neurological issues to birth defects to cancer. Here are some of the major culprits to look out for: